Lessons from the Cold War – and how to win

A currently trending topic is the idea of the re-emergence of the Cold War between China and the US; the Financial Times’ recent piece on ‘How the Chinese would rewire the Internet’ is a good indication of how two major and conflicting ideologies might manifest themselves in a non-violent manner. It is critical to remember that the Cold War was so-called because it was also directly non-violent – stand fast proxy conflicts – and it was ultimately non-violent actions that ended it. A major difference, however, between today’s Cold War and that of the second half of the 20th century is that the Soviet Union was always only ever an artificial construct held together by force; Chinese unity is far broader (but of course not ubiquitous).

There is so much to learn from history; this piece looks at how Reagan thought multi-dimensionally in his strategy to defeat the Soviet Union, and although he had an excellent ability to simplify things, this did not detract from his understanding of the complexity of the challenge.

‘My idea of American policy towards the Soviet Union is simple … We win and they lose.  What do you think of that?’[1]

Reagan’s team recognised the importance of aligning the levers of power; Reagan criticised ‘Jimmy Carter’s lack of coherent policy’[2]; Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stated that they ‘adopted a comprehensive strategy’[3]; National Security Advisor John Poindexter sought ‘an integrated policy that incorporated actions in all areas’[4]; and National Security Study Directive 11-82 demanded an analysis of ‘political, economic, social and ideological features of the Soviet system’.[5] The importance of strategic coherency was acknowledged by the Reagan administration – but was it achieved? 

The ends (and the boundaries)

Reagan’s motivation for foreign policy decisions was different to previous Presidents.  His dislike of the Soviet Union was based as much on morality as on geopolitics; the Soviet Union was an ‘evil empire’[6]; communism was ‘a form of insanity… contrary to human nature.’[7]  A Christian, he disliked that atheism was ‘as much a part of Communism as… the Gulag’.[8]  Schweizer even states that Reagan believed God had spared him from assassination in 1981 ‘for a divine purpose: defeating communism.’[9]  These factors helped establish in Reagan’s mind ‘the ends’; ‘the main goal of the United States’ cold war policy should be to hasten the end of communism’.[10]

But Reagan also had very clear boundaries as to how to bring about the end of communism – and nuclear first-strike was not an option.  Although acknowledging the importance of deterrence and brinkmanship, he later stated ‘there was nothing I wanted more than to lessen the risk of nuclear war’.[11]  Reagan saw the principle role of a government as protecting its citizens, and was keen that the US retain its ‘margin of safety; general warfare and providing for the common defense… are one and the same’.[12]  In keeping with Realist views within the White House, ‘containment’ was to remain a driving principle.[13] 

The means

Reagan’s initial focus was on reviving a stagnating domestic economy; the Department of Defense was the only federal department that would see its funding increase due to the need to reverse the perceived delta with military spending in the USSR, and this was an early indication of Reagan’s strategy.[14]  The Friedman-inspired “Reaganomics” was an economically and morally driven policy that would reduce federal spending on areas not crucial to security in order to free up resources for defence spending.  Military capability was expressed in terms of money spent; factors such as better efficiency or cheaper technology were rarely considered, although they were key to maintaining US superiority.  However, having this simple metric enabled him to establish a key element of his strategy – bankrupting the Soviet Union – and, crucially, express it to domestic and international audiences (friendly and hostile) that might not have grasped more complex nuances.  Deputy Secretary of State William Clark is clear: ‘[O]ur intention was to divert priority Soviet resources to meeting future US capabilities beyond their grasp’[15], the SDI being an obvious example of how this strategy was executed.  Reagan, typically, was blunter: ‘They can’t keep up.’[16]

The ways

A clear expression of the ‘ways’ can be found in National Security Directive 75.  It outlined three elements of US policy towards the Soviet Union: resistance to Soviet imperialism; internal pressure on the Soviet Union to liberalise; and improved bilateral relations. It categorised activities functionally (military, economic, political), geopolitically (with other states and regions), and bilaterally (between the US and USSR).  It is clear, in line with classic Clauswitzian thought, that the ‘military strategy will be combined with a political strategy’, and was a policy couched in a strategic timeframe – ‘for the long haul’.[17]

These different threads were to be tied together via the concept of “linkage”, which had developed from its original usage by Nixon and Kissinger.  Secretary of State Haig declared that ‘linkage is a prevailing concept in the administration’[18]; NSDD 75 attempted to bring policy to the Soviets out of departmentally-entrenched stovepipes, confirming that ‘genuine restraint in behaviour… might bring about important benefits for the Soviet Union.’[19]  The importance assigned to coherent execution of the strategy is therefore clear.

Reagan also believed that victory required strength; he described détente as ‘what a farmer has with his turkey – until thanksgiving day’[20], and compared it to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler.  Instead, he sought ‘peace through strength’[21], and created his strategy around ‘being so strong that a potential enemy is not tempted to go adventuring.’[22]  This would primarily be demonstrated militarily, but expected economic improvements coupled with the diplomatic high ground gained by exposing perceived Soviet wrong-doings would all give the US greater freedom of action to hasten the end of communism.

Strategy, Tactics, and the Reagan Doctrine

From 1984 onwards Reagan’s engagement with the Soviet Union took on a different, softer form.  The belligerence of his early-80s speeches reduced; the US would focus on defence of democracies around the world would, while Reagan sought ‘to establish a constructive and realistic working relationship with the Soviet Union.’[23]  A number of reasons are postulated for this change, including a genuine concern about nuclear weapons[24]; a reduced requirement for populist domestic rhetoric in the final term; an inefficient administration; the influence of European partners; and even the calming effect of the First Lady.[25]

This much-discussed change in tactics is not an indication of a failing or incoherent strategy, but evidence of a successful one.  NSD 75 planned for potential changes, and established a conditions-based approach for altering course, directing the US to ‘remain ready for improved US-Soviet relations’.[26]  Thus although seized upon by some commentators as a change in direction[27], the ‘Reagan Doctrine’ was entirely in keeping with the strategy postulated in Reagan’s first term.  It was merely a tactical interpretation of the strategy that reflected the changing situation.


Reagan’s Cold War strategy was coherent, aligning vertically across the levels of war, horizontally across the levers of power, geographically over the whole world, and temporally with a strategic long-term view.  Military spending was to grow to deter aggressive Soviet action and establish satisfactory conditions from which the US could negotiate a subsequent arms reduction.  Economic improvements would take full advantage of the Soviet economy’s weakness and inflexibility.  Diplomatic pressure would be applied to the USSR globally.  And the US filled the information space, making full use of globalising communications so that the USSR could no longer hide the benefits of liberal democracy – The Great Communicator would be in his element.  All these threads were to be woven together in a coherent fashion and applied across the world with a clearly defined end in mind – the fall of communism as a political system, an ideology, and a morality.



Clauswitz, Carl Von, (2012) On War, (Acheron Press), Kindle edition

Diggins, John Patrick (2007), Ronald Reagan: fate, freedom, and the making of history (New York: Norton)

Dobrynin, Anatoly (2001), In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to Six Cold War Presidents (London: University of Washington)

Fischer, Beth A. (2000), The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War

(Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri)

Mann, James (2009), The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (Kindle: Viking Penguin)

Reagan, Ronald (1990), Ronald Reagan: An American Life (Reading: Arrow)

Rummelt, Richard (2011), Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters (Suffolk: Profile Books)

Schweizer, Peter (1994), Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy that Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: Atlantic)

Schweizer, Peter (2002), Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of his Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph over Communism (New York: Doubleday)

Skinner, Kiron K, Anderson, Annelise, and Anderson, Martin (2001), Reagan, In His Own Hand (New York: The Free Press)

Smith, Joseph (1998), The Cold War, 1945-1991 (Cornwall: Blackwell)

Book chapters

Fischer, Beth A. (2010), ‘US Foreign Policy under Reagan and Bush’, in Westad, Odd A. and Leffler, Melvyn P. ed., The Cambridge History of the Cold War  (New York: Cambridge University Press), pp. 267-288

Jablonsky, David (2008), ‘Why is Strategy Difficult?’, in Bartholomees, J Boone ed., US Army War College Guide to National Security Issues  pp. 3-12

Kemp-Welch, Anthony (2010), ‘Eastern Europe: Stalinism to Solidarity’, in Leffler, Melvyn P. and Westad, Odd Arne ed., The Cambridge History of the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 219-237

Platias, Athanassios G., and Koliopoulos, Constantinos (2010), ‘Grand Strategy: A Framework for Analysis’, in Platias, Athanassios G. and Koliopoulos, Constantinos ed., Thucydides on Strategy (London: Hurst), pp. 1-21

Government Documents

NSA (1982), National Security Decision Directive 56: Private Inf Exchange, (Washington DC: The White House)

NSA (1982), National Security Decision Directive Number 32: US National Security Strategy, (Washington DC: Washington)

NSA (1982), National Security Study Directive Number 11-82: US Policy Toward the Soviet Union, (Washington, DC: The White House)

NSA (1983), National Security Directive Number 75: US Relations with the USSR, (Washington DC: The White House)

Journal Articles

Greenberg, David (2000), ‘The Empire Strikes Out: Why Star Wars Did Not End the Cold War’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 2, Mar/Apr 2000, pp. 136-142

Hellman, Martin E. (2008), ‘Risk Analysis of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, Vol. No. Spring, pp. 14-18

Kennan, George (1947), ‘Sources of Soviet Conduct’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 25, No. 4, Jul, pp. 566-582

Pach, Chester (2006), ‘The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy’, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1, Mar 26, pp. 75-88

Newspaper and Magazine Articles

Halloran, Richard (1982), ‘Pentagon Draws up First Strategy for Fighting a Long Nuclear War’, New York Times, 30 May 1982

Halloran, Richard (1982), ‘Reagan Aide Tells of New Strategy on Soviet Threat’, New York Times, 22 May 1982

Krauthammer, Charles (1985), ‘The Reagan Doctrine’, Time, 1 Apr 1985

Lectures, Presentations, and Speeches

Farrell, Theo, Honig, Jan Willem, and Betz, David (2014), ‘The War Studies Masterclass in Strategy: Lecture 1 – Strategy and Power’, King’s College London, 5 Feb 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1964), ‘A Time for Choosing’, 27 October 1964, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/reference/timechoosing.html, 2 February 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1980), ‘Peace: Restoring the Margin of Safety’, Chicago, Illinois, 18 Aug 1980

Reagan, Ronald (1981), ‘Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the Program for Economic Recovery’, 18 Feb 1981, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=43425, 20 Jan 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1983a), ‘Address on Defense and National Security’, 23 Mar 1983, http:/www.reagain.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1983/32383d.htm, 6 Feb 2014

Reagan, Ronald (1983b), ‘Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals’, 8 Mar 1983

Reagan, Ronald (1984), ‘Address to the Nation and Other Countries on United States-Soviet Relations ‘, 16 Jan 1984, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=39806, 25 Jan 14

Reagan, Ronald (1985), ‘State of the Union Address’, 6 Feb, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=38069, 2 Feb 14

Other media

Haig, Alexander (1981), Interview for ABC Television, ABC, 17 Apr 1981

Thatcher, Margaret (1983), ‘Grenada: Thatcher letter to Reagan’, 25 Oct 1983, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/commentary/displaydocument.asp?docid=109427, 28 Jan 14

Weinberger, Caspar W. (1984), ‘The Uses of Military Power’, Washington DC, 28 Nov 1984, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/military/force/weinberger.html, 28 Jan 14

[1] In conversation with Richard Allen, quoted in Schweizer (2002), p. 106.

[2] Reagan (1980).

[3] Caspar Weinberger, interview with author (Schweizer (1994), p. xv).

[4] John Poindexter, interview with author (Schweizer (1994), p. 132).

[5] NSA (1982), p. 1.

[6] Reagan (1983b).

[7] Reagan, May 1975, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 12.

[8] Reagan, 29 Jun 1979, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 174.

[9] Schweizer (2002), p. 3.

[10] Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 23.

[11] Reagan (1990), p. 265.

[12] Reagan (1980).

[13] Kennan (1947).  See Diggins (2007), pp. 192-96 for analysis of the broad church of advisors working for Reagan.

[14] Reagan (1981).  The DoD’s budget doubled from 1981 to 1986 (figures in Smith (1998), p. 132).

[15] William Clark, interview with author, Schweizer (1994), p.132.

[16] Quoted in Schweizer (2002), p. 141.

[17] NSA (1983).

[18] Haig (1981).  Also see Fischer (2000) pp. 23-25.

[19] NSA (1983).

[20] Reagan, 7 Aug 78, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 15.

[21] Reagan (1990), p. 267.

[22] Reagan, 13 Mar 78, quoted in Skinner, et al. (2001), p. 102.

[23] Reagan (1984).

[24] This was particularly heightened after the ‘near miss’ of Op ABLE ART in 1983.

[25] See Fischer (2010), pp. 273-75 and Fischer (2000).

[26] NSA (1983).

[27] Such as Krauthammer (1985).